GAMERS: THE WORLD’S NEXT SPORTS STARS?

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Gam­ing has be­come a big deal in the past cou­ple of decades, but the con­cept of eS­ports still

doesn’t sit well with many. We’re used to our sport­ing he­roes tick­ing cer­tain boxes, and hav­ing a look and per­sona that’s far re­moved from those as­so­ci­ated with the gam­ing world. We’re used to see­ing prime phys­i­cal spec­i­mens who un­dergo rig­or­ous train­ing on a daily ba­sis to al­low their bod­ies to do things that mere mor­tals can only dream about. The last thing we as­so­ciate with pro­fes­sional sport is the hack­neyed idea of a nerdy teen with a gam­ing head­set fever­ishly tap­ping away on a key­board and click­ing on a mouse - but the times, as they say, they are a changin’, and pro­fes­sional gam­ing is now a very real thing, of­fer­ing the best of the best an arena to make a real name, as well as plenty of money, for

them­selves by har­ness­ing their tal­ents. Are we re­ally that far away from see­ing eS­ports as a le­git­i­mate sport­ing en­deav­our? In a lot

of cases we’re closer than you might think...

When eCom­merce gi­ant Ama­zon an­nounced that it was set to ac­quire on­line video stream­ing site Twitch last year for close to $ 1 bil­lion, more than a few eye­brows were raised among the main­stream me­dia.

Twitch had built a name for it­self as the go- to re­source for real- time game stream­ing, boasting in ex­cess of 55 mil­lion users and more than 15 bil­lion min­utes of con­tent af­ter just three years in ex­is­tence. Of those raised eye­brows, few came from the di­rec­tion of those in the know about gam­ing. While the scope of the ac­qui­si­tion may have been a touch un­ex­pected, par­tic­u­larly given that Twitch wasn’t ex­actly gen­er­at­ing huge rev­enues, the knowl­edge that game stream­ing is a big deal has been around for a long time now. Part of the rea­son for Twitch’s suc­cess, as well as its de­sir­abil­ity to a com­pany like Ama­zon, is the fact that it ties in so well with the bur­geon­ing pro­fes­sional gam­ing in­dus­try. Us­ing the ser­vice, gamers from all over the world can tune in to watch the big­gest names on the eS­ports cir­cuit duking it out live at huge events - and they do, in their droves. Ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by BI In­tel­li­gence, Twitch ac­counts for around 43.6% of non- YouTube or Net­flix stream­ing traf­fic in North Amer­ica, eas­ily dwarf­ing the mar­ket share of es­tab­lished out­lets like WWE ( 17.7%), MLB. com ( 7.2%), ESPN ( 6.3%) and even CNN ( 0.8%). A few short years ago those num­bers would have been com­pletely un­think­able, but th­ese days it’s par for the course, and where there’s that large a de­sire from view­ers, there’s go­ing to be se­ri­ous foun­da­tions to build upon. Ma­jor gam­ing league or­ga­niz­ers are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to cater for the level of in­ter­est sur­round­ing their events, with sold out sta­di­ums across the world be­com­ing the norm for big- name com­pe­ti­tions - and that means that big money has man­aged to find its way into pro­fes­sional sports. The gam­ing in­dus­try is by no means a stranger to huge fi­nan­cial fig­ures - it cur­rently earns around $ 20 bil­lion an­nu­ally, more than the en­tire global mu­sic in­dus­try, and that growth is show­ing no signs of slow­ing down any time soon - but the idea that gamers can take each other on for huge prize pots is a rel­a­tively new devel­op­ment. In Au­gust last year Seat­tle played host to The In­ter­na­tional, a

tour­na­ment for play­ers of DotA 2, an on­line real- time strat­egy game from Valve. More than 12,000 spec­ta­tors packed them­selves into the Key Arena, for­mer home of the SuperSonics be­fore they upped sticks and moved to Ok­la­homa City to be­come the Thun­der, to watch the fi­nals of the tour­na­ment as teams from across the globe bat­tled it out for a piece of the un­prece­dented $ 11 mil­lion bounty. That tour­na­ment would ul­ti­mately be won by five- man Chi­nese team New­bee, who pock­eted them­selves a cool $ 1m EACH for prov­ing them­selves as the best DotA 2 play­ers in the world. Not bad money for a few hours’ work... on pa­per at least. The truth is that there’s a lot more to eS­ports than just be­ing “good” at a game. The guys who com­pete at the very top are in a whole other uni­verse to the term “good”. Th­ese play­ers are su­per­hu­man. They’re smart, fast and com­pletely ded­i­cated to the cause. They must put in thou­sands of hours of prac­tice to reach a level where they can start think­ing about com­pet­ing in, never mind win­ning, a tour­na­ment like The In­ter­na­tional. Where a pitcher might spend a few hours a day work­ing on his tech­niques, eS­ports com­peti­tors of­ten spend ev­ery wak­ing minute work­ing to im­prove their al­ready in­sane re­flexes, tighten up their prob­lem solv­ing abil­i­ties and build de­tailed tac­tics that’ll give them the edge on their com­pe­ti­tion - all the while that very same com­pe­ti­tion is spend­ing their time do­ing the very same thing.

How­ever, de­spite the in­cred­i­ble work done by the or­ga­niz­ers of th­ese events, the com­peti­tors tak­ing part and the mil­lions of view­ers, a ques­tion mark re­mains over the le­git­i­macy of pro­fes­sional gam­ing as a sport. Out­side those in­volved in the pur­suit, few are will­ing to rec­og­nize it as any­thing other than young men play­ing video games in their spare time. There are plenty of in­di­vid­u­als will­ing to put their necks on the line to as­sure that gam­ing re­ceives the at­ten­tion and re­spect they feel it be­lieves, how­ever. In De­cem­ber of last year Rob Pardo, for­mer chief cre­ative of­fi­cer at Bl­iz­zard told the BBC that he be­lieved gam­ing could go on to even big­ger and bet­ter things in the fu­ture. “Video games are well po­si­tioned to be a spec­ta­tor sport,” he ex­plained. “There’s a very good ar­gu­ment for eS­ports be­ing in the Olympics. It’s a very com­pet­i­tive skillset and you look at th­ese pro­fes­sional gamers and the re­flexes are light­ning quick and they’re hav­ing to make very quick de­ci­sions on the fly. When you look at their ‘ ac­tions per minute’, they’re clear­ing over 300.” Pardo ac­knowl­edged that ac­cep­tance of eS­ports would es­sen­tially re­quire a change to the fun­da­men­tally un­der­stood def­i­ni­tion of the word sport, how­ever. “If you want to de­fine sport as some­thing that takes a lot of phys­i­cal ex­er­tion, then it’s hard to ar­gue that video games should be a sport,” he con­ceded. “But at the same time, when I’m look­ing at things that are al­ready in the Olympics, I start ques­tion­ing the def­i­ni­tion.” Not ev­ery­one is in agree­ment with Pardo, though. Pres­i­dent of sports broad­caster ESPN John Skip­per firmly nailed his colours to the mast when asked last year about his opin­ion on eS­ports, say­ing “It’s not a sport, it’s a com­pe­ti­tion. Chess is a com­pe­ti­tion. Check­ers is a com­pe­ti­tion. Mostly, I’m in­ter­ested in do­ing real sports.” Cu­ri­ously though, that quote came hot on the heels of ESPN sign­ing a deal to broad­cast The In­ter­na­tional, and Skip­per’s core ar­gu­ment seems to be at odds with sev­eral of the “sports” broad­casted by his net­work, like fish­ing and poker - both of which

would be dif­fi­cult to cat­e­go­rize as tra­di­tional sports given the, ad­mit­tedly vague, cri­te­ria he laid out. De­spite what the likes of Skip­per think, though, it looks like it’s just a mat­ter of time be­fore eS­ports truly cross over into the main­stream. 2014 saw the de­but of eS­ports at the X Games, with com­peti­tors go­ing up against each other in a Call of Duty: Ghosts tour­na­ment, the win­ners nab­bing a le­git­i­mate X Games medal for their hard work, and that’s con­tin­ued in Jan­uary at X Games Aspen with a Counter- Strike: Global Of­fen­sive in­vi­ta­tional. Last month it was an­nounced that the United King­dom would be get­ting its very first ded­i­cated eS­ports arena, which opens later this month and will cater for 500 spec­ta­tors. It is es­ti­mated that the new arena, based on Lon­don, will play host to more than 30 events by the mid­dle of Septem­ber, with a cu­mu­la­tive prize pool of around $ 600,000 set aside for com­peti­tors. Canada, too, is not with­out its own firsts, with League of Leg­ends player Danny Le be­com­ing the first gamer in his­tory to be is­sued a tem­po­rary work­ing visa for the USA in the P- 1A cat­e­gory, in­tended specif­i­cally for those trav­el­ling to the States to com­pete as an “in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized ath­lete”. Re­gard­less of what the main­stream me­dia and gen­eral public think of pro­fes­sional gam­ing or eS­ports, the con­tin­ued suc­cess of on­line broad­cast­ing has en­sured that it’s go­ing nowhere. Records are con­tin­u­ally be­ing shat­tered in terms of view­er­ship of live streamed events, with tens of mil­lions reg­u­larly log­ging in to view the most popular League of Leg­ends events an­nu­ally. Last year’s LoL World Cham­pi­onships fi­nal drew an im­pres­sive 27 mil­lion unique view­ers which, although less than the record 32 mil­lion that tuned in to the pre­vi­ous year’s event, is nev­er­the­less far too big a num­ber to be ig­nored for too much longer. As to whether we’ll see eS­ports in the Olympics any time soon? That re­mains un­likely, but stranger things have hap­pened...

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